For our first book club back after our summer break we read Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson. Although we had two months to read that tome of a novel, it still proved to be too much for most of us. A big part of the book club enjoyed reading the book, but it did demand a lot of time and attention, which somehow it didn’t get. So we’re going to recommend some shorter works that will be a little bit easier to get through, but will be just as great at Tree of Smoke was for those who did finish it! We also have some discussion questions at the end in case you’re reading it with your own book club.
Denis Johnson’s first novel also deals with one of the characters we find in Tree of Smoke. In Angels we find Bill Houston after Tree of Smoke as a veteran, ex-husband and ex-con traveling around with runaway wife Jamie and her two kids. Driven by restless souls, bad booze, and desperate needs, Jamie and Bill bounce from bus stations to cheap hotels as they ply the strange, fascinating, and dangerous fringe of American life.
Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry was the only book Denis Johnson read during his MFA, so definitely a good influence for anyone who liked Tree of Smoke. In Under the Volcano, Geoffrey Fermin is the ex British Consul living in Mexico. The book narrates his last day, which ironically falls on The Day of the Dead, living in a strange land in an alcoholic stupor. The novel explores the political issues of the time and plays with the narrative and time structures just to mess with your brain.
Orfeo by Richard Powers brings the suspicion of the government into our own era. Composer Peter Els one day finds Homeland Security on his doorstep because his DIY musical experiments have aroused suspicion. He panics and flees and internet hysteria takes over, dubbing him Bioterrorist Bach. He travels across country to say goodbye to the people that shaped his musical interests and Els then comes up with a plan to turn this disastrous collision with national security into one last, resonant, calamitous artwork that might reach an audience beyond his wildest dreams
Possible Discussion Questions:
– How does the tropical setting influence the style and pace of the story?
– Did you find the conversational tone of the book believable? What did you think of the writing style in general?
– Who turned out to be the traitor? Was Skip loyal to his uncle and why did he turn to selling guns after his death?